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The Many Roads to Liberty

Alex Salter

The frequency and ferocity of libertarian infighting is legendary. It gives thinkers hostile to the philosophy opportunities to discredit it. “See?” they triumphantly crow. “These loons still haven’t gotten their house in order. They can’t even agree on first principles. And they have the audacity to claim they best understand the intricacies of social order?”

The fact that libertarians are often at each other’s throats is evidence, in these people’s minds, that adherents of libertarianism are nothing but a ragtag bunch of pontificators. Libertarians, they insist, needn’t be taken seriously.

As with many critiques, there is a kernel of truth to this. But it is outweighed by a grave error. Libertarians are, all too often, happy to decimate their intellectual fellow-travelers if they base their arguments on principles contrary to the “One True Theory” of liberty. This situation is obviously regrettable. But one should not jump from this to an indictment of libertarianism in general. In fact, the plurality of libertarians’ philosophical beliefs and argumentative structures is the philosophy’s greatest strength.

The next time you are at an event frequented by libertarians—an academic seminar, an advocacy group gathering, or even a purely recreational event—take a moment to sample the views present. At any one of these, you’re likely to find more than a few ethical deontologists; that is, those who hold fast to the non-aggression principle, or some other theory of man’s inviolable natural rights, as the foundation of ethics and political philosophy.

You’re also likely to encounter the more consequentially minded. This group—undoubtedly with more than its proportional share of economists—will stress the effectiveness of libertarian principles in yielding material abundance and providing people the means to best satisfy their own ends. Nowadays you’ll even find those who walk a middle ground between deontology and consequentialism, in the tradition of virtue ethics (those who believe the importance of a liberal political order in enabling human flourishing) and ethical intuitionism (the belief that common-sense morality suggests that in the vast majority of circumstances, it’s wrong to forcibly take from others the resources necessary to enact one’s own narrow vision of the good society).

You’ll find bleeding heart libertarians and objectivists, navy blazer-clad constitutional conservatives and hipster anarcho-capitalists, mutualists, and capitalists. You’ll find economists, political philosophers, ethical philosophers, historians, sociologists, journalists, policy wonks, financiers, and a host of other professionals who agitate for liberty in their spare time. Each of these will have their own story about how they became passionate about liberty, and each will have a unique twist on the categories of principles that are so often a source of internal disagreement.

Can you find this kind of heterogeneity in the ranks of other philosophies? I think not. While progressives, conservatives, and outright socialists are often diverse in terms of their personal characteristics, their intellectual repertoire is noticeably more limited than libertarians’. It would have to be, given how gleefully they excoriate libertarians for their internecine conflicts. But the diversity of libertarians’ first principles suggests, more than anything, just how compatible the system of natural liberty is with a wide range of justificatory foundations.

Libertarianism at its best, as Steve Horwitz rightly argues, is a cosmopolitan philosophy of human flourishing. That one can reach libertarian conclusions with so many different premises makes it that much more plausible, not less. There are many ways to understand flourishing, many conceptions of the good society. They are often at odds with each other, but even the most dogmatic libertarian would admit that other points of view have something going for them, even as he vehemently insists they are deficient in important ways.  

When one looks at a problem from many different angles, and nonetheless reaches the same conclusion, it is evidence for that conclusion’s robustness. Libertarianism is no different. The many different roads to libertarianism, each with something to commend it, suggest that the best way to promote human flourishing is to embrace the system of natural liberty. Internal differences of opinion are not something to be ferreted out and crushed, but nourished and celebrated. Let libertarian pluralism reign.

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